Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Friday, March 23

In Liberia: peacekeepers, trailblazers

Tristan McConnell of The Christian Science Monitor reports this week on a group of 103 peacekeepers in Liberia—out of a total of 15,000 troops there—who are part of something groundbreaking: these Indian women constitute the U.N.’s first all-female peacekeeping force. Stationed in the country since January, this contingent represents a novel new approach for UNMIL and the U.N.’s 15 other ongoing peacekeeping missions.

Among the many scandals that have plagued the U.N. in recent years, one of the most disturbing has been that of the incessant reports of sexual abuse and exploitation—rape, pedophilia, sex with prostitutes, human trafficking—by the organization’s personnel, particularly peacekeepers. Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, permanent representative of Jordan and advisor to the secretary-general on sexual exploitation and abuse, released a report two years ago that shed some light on this serious problem, following revelations in 2004 of widespread misconduct by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Just between May and September, 2004, the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services received 72 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the DRC. Overall, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) reported 105 allegations against civilian and military peacekeeping personnel in 2004, and 319 in the past three years. But the problem has yet to dissipate—in December, 2006, Kofi Annan, during the final days of his tenure as secretary-general, told participants at the U.N. Conference to End Sexual Exploitation, “Acts of sexual exploitation and abuse by both civilian and uniformed United Nations personnel continue to occur,” irrespective of the Secretariat’s “zero-tolerance” policy on the matter.

Employing more female peacekeepers, the U.N. hopes, will help to cut down on these crimes committed by the very people sent to bring security and stability to war-ravaged nations. The U.N.’s options are limited in this regard because about 80% of peacekeeping personnel are free from prosecution by the organization and fall only under the jurisdictions of their home countries.

Yet this unit, commanded by Seema Dhundia, aspires to more than simply changing the shameful face of the DPKO; these women hope to inspire more Liberian women to join the Liberia National Police (LNP); today, the LNP is 5% female—the U.N. has set a target for 20% female participation. Commander Dhundia and her unit further hope, as models of females in positions of power, to reduce violence against women in Liberia.

Liberia erupted into its latest civil war in 1989 with the invasion of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Though a ceasefire was signed in 1996, Taylor spread fighting to neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, and, after being elected president in 1997, acted as the main destabilizing force in the region. Internal and external pressures finally forced Taylor from power in 2003, and a peace treaty was signed in August of that year. In total, Liberia’s civil war took the lives of an estimated 200,000 people and displaced one million more.

After two years of a transitional government, in January, 2006, Liberia inaugurated a new democratic government headed by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state. Nevertheless, despite the remarkable headway Liberia has made with the first woman president on the continent and the U.N.’s first all-female peacekeeping unit, women’s rights and sexual equality remain major challenges for the country: rape is the most-reported serious crime there—two in five Liberian women were raped during the 14 years of war that ended in 2003.